Like taking candy from a baby


 If you have a pet rabbit and it escapes from its hutch, who’s to blame? Sure, you might be annoyed with the animal for causing you the inconvenience of an arduous and wheezy chase, but when you come to pass judgement on the episode, it’s usually your own failure to lock the damn thing that led to your bothersome leporine woes.

The point is, when you take away societal morals, inhibitions and other manufactured constraints, humans are just animals, and crafty ones at that. From the youngest of ages, children look for ways to exploit the rules their parents impose on them, and it takes an attentive eye to ensure that a small hand stays away from the proverbial cookie jar. What our nation is currently experiencing is an overblown ballyhoo of rampant outrage aimed at a group of journalists who worked out a way to consistently grab the rich tea of the telecommunications world – personal voicemails.

Don’t get me wrong; I most certainly don’t condone the actions of any of the journalists implicated in these crimes. I am however amazed that so few people are asking why the voicemails under question were not protected a little more securely. A while back, there was a furore when a Twitter employee’s emails were accessed through a flaw in the security system of Gmail’s “forgotten password” service. While people largely disagreed with the actions of the hacker from a moral and legal standpoint, fingers were ultimately pointed in the direction of Google for not having stricter security measures.

Emails are (generally) thoughtfully composed and briefly checked over before they are sent, whereas people rarely use the re-record feature on voicemail to airbrush their aural liaisons, and who would think twice about divulging a few personal details over voicemail? It seems slightly more… private, almost transient, while an email can be drudged up from the murky depths of cyberspace to burn an acrid hole in our reputation years later. Except we now know that voicemails aren’t quite as innocuous as we once thought they were.

Therefore, surely, oughtn’t voicemails to be even more strongly protected than emails? Before 2006, voicemail hacking was a laughably elementary affair, with the would-be-hacker simply having to call up the remote access number prescribed by the mobile network the victim used, then enter a PIN code to begin purloining voicemails. “Ah, but there’s a security code, it must be safe” I hear you object – unfortunately the “security” code issued to each customer was a standard 4-digit code such as 0000, and it was up to the user to customise this, a small and easy task that almost no one deigned worthy of their attention. It makes it seem almost flattering to call these criminal journalists “hackers”. 

Could you imagine the uproar if banks decided to issue debit cards with a standard PIN of 0000? No one in their right mind would consider that to be a valid security method, and certainly not for the personal voicemails of millions of customers. Nowadays customers are forced to choose a PIN of their own before they can access their voicemails, but this leads to the ever-predictable British public using diabolical cyphers such as their birthday, or their wedding anniversary. Much safer, I’m sure you’d agree… It is easy to see how this phone “hacking” scandal developed.

Recently the Sony Playstation Network, a service that allows gamers to purchase digital products and play other gamers online, was hacked into and the personal details of millions of users were stolen, including home addresses, phone numbers and credit card details. This was a massive scandal with huge legal implications for Sony and fingers were immediately pointed, but news of the hackers fizzled out pretty fast. As usual, the media went after the easy target and focused importunately on Sony’s failure to protect the details of their users, and quite rightly so.

Today we are confronted with a similar case. While in the Sony affair the media decided to focus on blaming those on the receiving end of the attack,  today the media is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the naming and shaming of anyone remotely implicated in the News of the World phone hacking. The media is for once focusing almost exclusively on the actions of the hackers.

Now after the resignations of Coulson, Brooks, Yates, Stephenson and a slew of reporters, people linked to the scandal are dropping faster than News Corporation’s share price, and people are starting to tire of all the remonstration. It is time to consider what the lasting effects of this overblown debacle will be. For one, the media will be brought to account more closely for their actions, and I don’t think that this is altogether a bad thing. The modern media has become overgrown and certainly needs some pruning, but this is true of almost any organisation – given long enough people are bound to bend and break the rules, and when this happens the time is right for a reassessment of those rules to ensure that standards and morals remain high. 

Similarly, I think the whole affair provides everyone, in particular those in the public eye, with a poignant reminder that in a rapidly developing world of technology, our personal information is increasingly available for the seasoned would-be-hacker. MPs will become more guarded with their private correspondences, but in the long term will anyone’s behaviour realistically change?

I think not. After all, it’s human nature to search for loopholes and exploit them. The unfortunate short term side effect of the incident is that we’ll have to listen to a litany of pseudo-moral debate in parliament about who-did-what-and-hired-who-and-probably-wasn’t-really-that-involved-in-the-scandal-but-you-never-know-they-might’ve-been. For goodness sake let’s just get on with sorting out who’s to blame and stop acting like we never knew newspapers sometimes flouted legality to get the killer scoop. The problem is that we won’t, and we never will. Because everybody loves a scandal.


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